Malawi’s recent (and still ongoing!) elections have in some senses been paradigmatic of issues facing African democracies more broadly. It’s not so much that democracy in Africa is a European imposition and that there is some kind of authentic ‘African way of doing things’ which would be better, but that, on the whole, African politicians don’t behave very differently from politicians anywhere else. It’s just that African politicians are more put under the spotlight because of conventional tropes about Africa being backward and Africans being incompetent.
Let’s take the Malawian presidential elections as an example of how politics in Malawi is not so different from elsewhere. We’ve had a major dose of dynastic politics which has seen two largely discredited, and one dead, ex-presidents’ family names being thrust back into the political arena (in the guise of the brother, Peter Mutharika and the son, Atupele Muluzi). We’ve also had an incumbent who was never elected in the first place, had no party to speak of on ascending to the Presidency (before party defections swelled her ranks), and who has been wined and dined by the international community whilst simultaneously actively stimulating increased poverty levels in Malawi through the devaluation of the currency to meet IMF demands (not to mention being ‘on duty’ whilst up to $30 million dollars was being swindled from public accounts, and whose involvement in this remains unclear). Lastly, we have the candidate of the old independence party, a complete political novice fronting up a set of interests still tied to the old way of doing (authoritarian) politics in Malawi. Yes, yes, African politics as normal. But we could insert any number of names here ranging from Georges and Jeb Bush, the Clintons, Silvio Berlusconi, Jaques Chirac, blah blah blah. The point, as the political anthropologist James Ferguson has pointed out elsewhere, is that ‘African politics, so long misunderstood as backward, is starting to look very up-to-date indeed’.
What to make of these elections then? Well, first up, they have been far more exciting than either the South African or the Indian elections, far less predictable, and probably far freer of political intimidation. Bar two deaths early on in the campaign, such violence as there has been on the election days themselves seem to have been rooted in public frustration with the incompetence of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) which meant that election materials had still not been delivered to some polling stations nearly 36 hours after polls were due to open at 6am on May 21st. Statements by the British High Commissioner, the African Union and the EU elections monitoring team claiming that the elections had not been visibly tampered with, seemed particularly injudicious with polling stations burning in both Blantyre and Lilongwe. Indeed, the extent to which political manipulation was behind some of this, particularly in Blantyre, which experienced a disproportionate amount of problems, and is (coincidentally?) an opposition stronghold, remains unclear. However, it is important to keep in mind that the violence was first of all pretty low-scale, with no fatalities, and was all about wanting to vote. In most of the country the voting passed off peacefully.
What happens now? Well the MEC is still counting votes, and may not release results for several days to come. The digital system has crashed, and the still incumbent Joyce Banda is raising concerns of hacking and manipulation. This is a bit rich of course coming from someone who distributed sacks of maize emblazoned with her initials not so long ago. It is also a bit rich of her to complain about problems with the electoral roll when this has been common knowledge for several months. All in all it smacks of desperation.
Nonetheless, whenever the results do come out it is looking very likely that there will be a close and thus contested outcome. What will this mean for the shape of Parliament? Will we see even more party defections than we normally see after an election? And how will the (close) losers react? Mutharika and Muluzi have both put out statements calling for people to respect the results, but how seriously can we take them, and how seriously will people on the ground take them?
The people of Malawi have been given a rum old choice for their president this year. With the possible exception of the Malawi Congress Party’s Lazarus Chakwera (although please correct me if I’m wrong!) all the others seem to be in it at least partially for the ‘chop’. As I said when I opened this piece, politicians love to eat the world over, but rarely do so many have to wait for so long, in such uncertainty, to find out if they’ve secured their seat at the table.